Catching up with Americana pioneer David Bromberg

Americana musician David Bromberg broke away from a highly regarded career to become a violin maker in the ’80s. He later returned to music on his own terms and is currently playing dates to support his latest release Only Slightly Mad. Publicity photo Americana musician David Bromberg broke away from a highly regarded career to become a violin maker in the ’80s. He later returned to music on his own terms and is currently playing dates to support his latest release Only Slightly Mad. Publicity photo

David Bromberg doesn’t take interview calls until 5pm. That’s when the work day is done at his violin retail and repair shop in Wilmington, Delaware. It’s a humble existence for a guy who was once Columbia Records’ second-best recording artist behind Bob Dylan, but a few minutes on the phone with Bromberg reveal that he doesn’t spend much time thinking about his long list of past accomplishments.

The multi-instrumentalist, who emerged from the Greenwich Village folk scene in the mid ’60s, studied musicology at Columbia University and learned blues guitar from the Reverend Gary Davis. He later became a coveted sideman, heard on hundreds of records by the likes of Dylan, The Eagles, Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, and Carly Simon. His 1971 debut eponymous record featured “The Holdup,” a tune co-
written with George Harrison.

In subsequent albums Bromberg expanded his range, enlisting backing help from the Grateful Dead and eventually forming his own David Bromberg Big Band to deliver a pioneering blend of roots music that mingled parts of blues, folk, R&B, and even bluegrass. The man now called the “Godfather of Americana” was clearly ahead of his time.

Despite moderate success, Bromberg had had enough of the music business by 1980, so he stopped touring and enrolled in Chicago’s Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. In 2002 he relocated to Delaware, where he opened David Bromberg Fine Violins.

Around the same time, some fellow musicians encouraged Bromberg to start playing again, and he’s since picked up his touring regimen and released three studio albums. The latest, last year’s Only Slightly Mad, was produced by Larry Campbell (Dylan, Levon Helm), who oversaw a fresh take on the throwback style of Bromberg’s early work. The effort features a melting pot of vintage influences, including covers of Blind Willie Johnson and Bill Monroe, as well as a few originals. Bromberg will bring his quintet to the Jefferson Theater on June 5.

C-VILLE Weekly: With a deep well of new material and influence from your past, what’s to be expected of a David Bromberg show these days? 

David Bromberg: I don’t have a set list, so I have no idea what I’m going to play. I just call things out as they come to mind. That’s how it works. I’m probably going to play a few things from the new CD.

Speaking of which, in many ways your latest record, Only Slightly Mad, takes you back to some of your earliest influences. Was that the intention?

I asked Larry Campbell, who has a wall full of Grammys and produced all of Levon [Helm]’s records, if he’d produce a CD of Chicago-style blues. He said he’d rather do an old-fashioned David Bromberg CD with everything in it but the kitchen sink. When I thought about it, I realized there would be nobody better. Larry understands all the different kinds of music that I like.

What prompts a musician with such an impressive resumé to call it quits and go to violin-making school?

I got burnt out. To be perfectly honest about it, I was too stupid to realize it was burnout. The only conclusion I reached was that I wasn’t a musician anymore. I decided I needed to find another way to live my life. At the time, I was living in Marin County (in California) and the only place I had any intellectual stimulation was in a violin-
making shop. I decided to try it.

I think [the decision] was right in some ways and wrong in others. I stopped playing for 22 years, and even though I discovered I actually was a musician, I missed a couple of generations.

From that standpoint maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I love the violin thing, too. It has definitely enriched my life.

How does someone who backed Bob Dylan and wrote a song with George Harrison not consider himself a musician? 

I never said I was smart. I never thought about it that way, and I don’t spend a lot of time in reflection. I’d rather live my life than analyze it.

After attending violin school in Chicago, what drew you to Wilmington to open the shop? 

I hadn’t really planned to open a shop; it just kind of happened when I got here. My wife and I were tired of the cold winters in Chicago and wanted to move back East. We couldn’t afford to be in New York City. We had a friend here, so everything worked out. 

How do you balance life between the shop and touring? 

If I could get it perfect, I think I would hit the road twice a month for four or five days at a time. That’s what I try to do, but it never quite works out that way. There are always a few more or a few less gigs. I never want to be burnt out again.

Many young bands are now incorporating a range of different roots music styles, like you did years ago. With a nickname the Godfather of Americana, do you feel like you were an artist before your time?

It doesn’t really pay to do that. I did what I did, and it’s nice that people are doing it now. It’s also nice that there’s a name for it. The label Americana is really a new thing. 

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